There are a lot of surface similarities between The Family Fang and Arrested Development, another tragicomedy about an extravagantly dysfunctional family in which Jason Bateman’s character reacts against his parents’ high-handed neglect by trying to become a model of emotional health and stability. But where Arrested Development used a light dusting of sorrow to add shading to a gleefully absurdist romp, The Family Fang is an earnest story of redemption with a wacky veneer that doesn’t quite fit.
Baxter (Bateman) and Annie Fang (Nicole Kidman) spent their childhood as the sometimes unknowing stars of the pieces their performance-artist parents cooked up. Flashbacks throughout the film reveal bits of these stunts, in which the family stages fake-outs, like one inside Central Park that has the kids playing music and singing (badly) while one of their parents, posing as a stranger, riles up the protective crowd by ranting about their lousy act. There’s anarchic fun to be had for the children in fooling large groups of people and then getting praised for it, by their parents and by the art-world curators who admire the family’s work. But after a piece that puts the children in a profoundly uncomfortable position, they develop a nagging sense, which grows more troubling as they get older, that their parents care more about them as actors than as people. Even their names are a performance-art in joke, engineered so they could be referred to as Child A and Child B.
After opening with a flashback to a family performance, The Family Fang introduces us to the grown-up Fang children, who are textbook cases of the neuroses one might expect to see in those raised by emotionally neglectful parents. Annie is an actress with a reputation as a wild child and, as her agent crisply informs her, “the impulse control of a two-year-old,” and Baxter is a broke novelist with writer’s block who says he likes to write because it’s a way to “control the world.” Then Baxter gets shot in the head by a potato gun while researching a magazine story and asks Annie to take care of him while he recovers. Together for the first time in a long time in their childhood home, the siblings begin to explore the family dynamics that have left them emotionally crippled, determined to heal themselves.
Exaggerating the sins of garden-variety neglectful parents could be an ingenious setup for exploring the grievances of adults who were neglected as children, but the film only skates along the surface of the Fang family’s emotions. The four Fangs are almost never seen together except in flashbacks of a few of their stunts, so we get no sense of their daily life and only a cursory understanding of their relationships to one another. The father, Caleb (played by Jason Butler Harner as a young man and by Christopher Walken later in life) emerges the family’s alpha dog, a caricature of the paterfamilias so bent on his career that he has no time for his children, but their mother (Kathryn Hahn and Maryann Plunkett) remains an emotional cipher. Hahn and Plunkett don’t even appear to be playing the same character; the latter is warmer and softer, a change that isn’t signaled in Hahn’s flinty performance.
There’s real texture and emotional heft to the central relationship between the siblings, but that’s thanks more to the actors than the script. Bateman’s trademark sardonic sincerity fits his role neatly. When Baxter first calls Annie and she asks, with natural concern, who shot him in the head, his laconic deadpan milks every drop of humor from an answer the audience already knew: “This guy. And it was a potato.” His self-protective deadpan complements the antsy annoyance Kidman exudes as Annie. As Baxter and his sister watch home movies in their parents’ spookily dark house or discuss their parents, his steadiness calming her as her skepticism challenges him, the two have convincing sibling chemistry.
But there’s something a little too hermetically sealed about their bond that the script, which even hints at incestuous feelings, never even acknowledges, let alone explores. When Baxter and Annie’s search for enlightenment turns into a full-blown mystery that ends with an unexpected twist, The Family Fang gets a jolt of energy, but for the most part it feels frustratingly inert, too glib to work as a character study and too depressing to work as comedy.